Rampant Chiefs from the wild west: Exeter's rise has surprised everybody and they are far from finished yet
English rugby may be slowly recovering from the epidemic, but Europe is still showing the symptoms. The illness has no name, but let us call it the underestimation of Exeter Chiefs.
"It's only our second Heineken Cup year," says Tom Johnson, Exeter's England flanker, of the competition that takes his club to Glasgow today, before home and away meetings with the champions Toulon in December. "I'm sure there are big teams looking at us and thinking there's easy points they can pick up.
"It plays into our hands. It certainly did in our first two seasons in the Premiership. Leicester and Northampton are trotting out their strongest XV when they come to us now. That's a compliment in itself."
Cardiff Blues got their come-uppance at Sandy Park last Sunday. A team laden with Lions conceded five tries in 50 minutes and were hammered 44-29 as Exeter rucked, tackled, cleared out and spread the ball with the alacrity their Premiership peers have learnt to respect since the promotion year of 2010.
So the Chiefs are now kings of their Devonian frontier, with smart facilities and solid plans for expansion, a £7.5million bond issue going well, a handful of England Under-20 internationals and the hosting of three Rugby World Cup pool matches in 2015. The question forming on everyone's lips is: what next?
"It never feels like the club is happy where they are," says Johnson, who joined Exeter six years ago and became the club's first player to score a try for England.
"We don't tend to draw breath and think about where we've come from. It's: 'Right, this is where we need to improve, bang' – it's very matter of fact. Judging on what's gone on before, Rob [Baxter, the head coach] will keep adding select players, like he did with [the Australian lock] Dean Mumm last year, which has proven to be brilliant. The culture and lifestyle here is very good; it's conducive to family, old-school rugby. There's still a lot of people who want that rather than the bright lights, the big wages."
Which is a cue to consult the chief executive of the Chiefs, Tony Rowe. He began investing in the amateur days, and his communications company's name is still worn on the black and blue shirt. As a kid he was a Royal Marines bandsman. In the 1970s and 80s he dealt in powerboats, and raced them to UK champion standard around the docks of Bristol and London at 80mph.
How does the adrenaline rush compare with seeing Exeter go toe to toe with Clermont Auvergne and Leinster last season?
"It isn't so much the adrenaline, it's whether my old heart can take it," says Rowe. "Last Sunday we had a commanding lead at half-time then shot ourselves in the foot for a bit, with two yellow cards. The night we won the Championship at Bristol [in 2010], I left the stadium 10 minutes before the end. I couldn't watch."
But Rowe is no flibbertigibbet in the boardroom. Successive coaches Ian Bremner and Pete Drewett were both dispensed with. Exeter remains a members' club with a long waiting list but its business is solidly based on a combination of rugby with conference and banqueting.
With Premiership finishes of fifth and sixth in the last two years, the Chiefs backed by their infectious Tomahawk Chop anthem have cumulatively outstripped Gloucester, Bath and Worcester, and won matches against Leicester, Northampton and Saracens – so how about France, where some clubs' wage bills including Toulon's are three or four times as much as the English salary cap of around £4.8million? Rowe was once a member of the only all-English crew to win a Rouen 24-hour race (powerboating's equivalent of Le Mans), and he fancies reining in the French again.
"The desire in France is to bring their salary cap down," says Rowe, "whereas here the revenues generated by Premiership Rugby are going up and there is a determination for the salary cap to go up too. I've seen the projections and I know what's in the pipeline over the next two or three years.
"There's a good chance the central incomes will overtake the salary cap for the first time, even with the cap rising. Our business appeals to As and Bs in customers, and they have been through a tough patch. As that improves, I think you'll see a lot more money come into the sport."
And straight into players' pockets, with more recruitment from overseas?
"It's about people being sensible," says Rowe. "It's no good because one club in England may be able to afford to spend eight million pounds that everyone does it. You've got to have other teams to play against haven't you? Without the salary cap it would be chaos. And, anyway, just because you've got the fattest chequebook doesn't mean you're going to win – as we proved last weekend."
Rowe doubts a club in Cornwall can "make the numbers work" to prosper in the Premiership. Clearly, though, he sees Exeter as the West's best bet.
Johnson says: "We're not after accolades from the wider rugby public. That's not what drives us a club. We know if we stick to our path, good things will come, players will get international recognition."
Keep an eye out for Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Sam Hill and Henry Slade among others.
As for Glasgow and the remaining Heineken Cup matches: "Rob [Baxter] is very strong on detail," says Johnson, "whether it's body position at rucks or knowing what we need to qualify.
"It's great for giving you a focus. You might be 10 points down but you will be fighting tooth and nail, knowing the value of a bonus, and of denying the opposition one."
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